Can Metternich solve the Syrian Crisis?

Leaders, including Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (2nd row, 2nd L), pose for pictures during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province
Leaders, including Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (2nd row, 2nd L), pose for pictures during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By Michelangelo Freyrie

It´s hard to recognize history in the making. In the era of breaking news and mediatic sensationalism we often risk losing the perspective on the long-term trends that will end up defining our future. Similarly, it´s easy to identify the election of Mr. Trump as the main event signaling the end of multilateral partnership, and despite he didn´t fail to deliver on some iconic moments that will surely become symbols of this détente, it would be unfair to forget that international cooperation has proven to be ineffective on tackling a series of issues well before the current political cycle.  There is an increasing number of transnational crises on which the international community has failed to effectively intervene: of course, the Syrian Civil War and the Ukrainian Crisis jump to mind, but the Yemeni Civil War, mass migration to Europe, control of swaths of territory by Mexican cartels, the South China Sea controversy, de-facto anarchy in Libya and Somalia, conflict in Nigeria, global warming and so on also represent important issues on which our current multinational framework is deemed ineffective. Conflict and difficulties in tackling crises are of course a common thread of history; nevertheless, what differentiates all these challenges with what we´re used to in international politics is the sheer scope their first-order consequences have on the world. If the Angolan War or Vietnam had an influence the global balance of power, then it was primarily because of the consequences regional shifts and on the internal matters of the involved countries and on the strategic confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. Syria´s fallout, on the other hand, is spawning far more collateral issues than any traditional civil war in recent memory. Like Pandora´s box, the 2011 revolution has unleashed a global refugee crisis, further destabilization of the greater Middle East and has helped the resurgence of Iran. This kind of high-intensity, chronic crises is something the current international asset wasn´t designed to tackle also because of the degree to which national interests can intertwine today, even defying broader strategic alliances. Again, Syria is a perfect example: Operation Inherent Resolve hardly resembles a cohesive partnership and often struggles even to avoid clashes between units supposedly fighting on the same side of the conflict. It doesn´t therefore surprise that a number of policy proposals have started to emerge in an attempt to put an halt to what many fear is a slow breakdown of international cooperation. Two are the visions are starting to emerge: while the first urges a consolidation and rebranding of internationalism, the second sees states as the primary force behind stabilization.

Concerts, traps and Realpolitik

In this context, the idea of a resurgent “Concert of Powers” is surely the most fascinating proposal out there. One of the reasons of its appeal is that in contrast to more apocalyptic visions of the future, it puts an emphasis to the fact that one way or another Nation-States will continue to exist and play a key role in the international arena. As such, the greatest danger to global peace is seen not so much in global political uncertainty as such (politics is uncertain by definition), but in the emergence of new actors and the risks posed of existing, albeit latent conflicts. Intriguingly, it´s primary function would be that of limiting the tensions connected to the “Thucydides Traps”[1] that emerging powers such as China push the US-led international order into. Intriguingly, a great emphasis is also put on the emergence of regional authorities such as Iran or Indonesia which are often deemed as the most likely ignitors of a conflict between the “old” and “new” powers.[2]

The term “Concert of Powers” was first used to define the international order emerged from post-Napoleonic Europe. Masterminded by Klemens von Metternich, although its goal was to preserve the Austrian sphere of influence in Central and Southern Europe, it was also a grand diplomatic proposal to other European countries. Prevented from reinstating the prewar order because of the social and political shifts of the previous decades, the victorious anti-French coalition could come up with a new order of meant to maintain lasting peace on the continent – and with it a system protecting the absolute governments that had been challenged by revolutionary France and Bonaparte. The model relied on a strictly multipolar vision of Europe: regular attempts to harmonize distinct positions were enforced through political coercion against the rulebreakers. “Members guaranteed their mutual existence, territorial integrity and recognized on another’s vital interests. They agreed upon equal treatment of member states with different capabilities. All of them committed themselves to avoid altering the status quo by force and to sustaining from intervention in other member states’ internal affairs, except by diplomatic means. Furthermore, they were united in solidarity with the common objective of containing revisionist ambitions. Most importantly, they agreed on the practice of collective consultation (as an instrument for crisis management) as well as common action.”

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The main advantage this kind of arrangement would bring to the 21th century would be the informal nature of its composition. Its advocates point out that regular, albeit non-enforcing pacts would help overcoming the gridlocks of institutions as the UN Security Council and help moving towards the acknowledgement of the divergences preventing tighter cooperation. It is also said to create a system pursuing security and equilibrium allowing for dialogue with non-liberal partners such as China and Russia, allowing them to be involved in the surveillance of regional powers potentially interested in exploiting conflicts between great powers. Its main aim would therefore be a smooth emergence of a multi-polar world, substituting the idea of a single global order with the institutionalization of spheres of influence. More importantly, it envisions a system of power which doesn´t need philosophical justification and, in a supreme act of Realpolitik, allows the resolution of issues which would otherwise seem unsolvable because of ideological posturing.

Back to World War One

Arguably, the Concert’s strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. . For one, the historical model on which it’s based didn’t end up very well. The “Concert of Powers” relies on the assumption that its participants share a common interest in maintaining the bargained global order, which wasn’t true even in the 19th century: it only tool few decades for Prussia to pray on Austrian weakness and impose its dominance over the German confederation. Two centuries later, there are few countries with an incentive to maintain the current balance, and more importantly, they’re the ones already involved in international cooperation. It’s hard to imagine how a conference on the partition of the Middle East in spheres of influence would produce an agreement for powers aiming at total regional domination like Saudi Arabia or Iran, the same way the satisfying Russian demands would equate to surrendering European sovereignty on its eastern flank. Crucially, the failure of a wider consensus is inherent in every perspective we decide to have on international relations: if we subscribe to Hans Morgenthau’s idea of a system uphold by competition between states, comprehensive accords would equate to disadvantages for the weaker powers. Why would Moscow surrender its ambitions on the western borders if it deprives them of the main leverage towards Europe? Why should Qatar renounce financing non-state actors like Hamas, since they’re the only available instrument to project power abroad? Similarly, a hierarchical vision based on a hegemonic actor implies that nations with good chances of becoming leviathans like China and India would need to restrain themselves in pursuing their own interests abroad – and restrain isn´t something we can expect from nations with time, energy and demographics on their side.[3]

As of today, there’s little suggesting that a reformed Concert of Powers would differ from the G20 forum. While dialogue surely helps easing tensions between nation-states, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the global order could be upheld through the partition of the world in spheres of influences. This has proved only partially possible even during the Cold War: despite reminiscences of the defined “precarious rules of status quo”, the clash between West and East has known many flashpoints challenging peace and order. A system of offsetting interests doesn’t ensure peace, if nothing because it risks expanding the jus ad bellum to questions of national interests. Despite its difficult and arbitrary implementation, the biggest achievement of the post-war order was the limitation of “just” war goals to defense and the responsibility to protect. A working Concert of Powers needs as a prerequisite the acknowledgement that stability and equilibrium of power are the supreme values to be protected, in defense to which the member states can legitimately intervene. The most dreadful example of a war aimed at protecting this balance has been World War One, when the conflict against Germany became a series of rebalancing acts at the expense of crumbling empires from Trieste to Tsingtao.

An obsolete solution

As if this wasn’t enough, the slow collapse of the Westphalian power, based on sovereign states, also renders the adoption of such a solution more and more unlikely.  In 2007 Nancy Fraser wrote that as social issues started to transcend its national dimension, the nation-state has started itself to become a source of inequality and to lose its efficiency as a mean of resolution. Ten years later, a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) assesses that “political fragmentation and loss of faith in state institutions permeates weak and unstable environments […] [leaving] a void exploited by nonstate actors and other powers”[4]. If collective action seems an incredible challenge in an era where most states aspire to regional domination, it becomes almost unsurmountable when we account for the emergence of non-state actors that would hardly be bind by these arrangements. Social interests are more and more defying the national logic, and in Africa we’ve witnessed the birth of predatory power structures that have little to share with a Westphalian state but nevertheless wield significant power[5]. If we were to base a new international order on the negotiation of every interest, then where would the line be drawn? Would the pleas of local warlords be hold into consideration? And what about industrial and economic concerns with endemic presence in our social asset? If these questions have become relevant in the last few years, that´s also because we can´t imagine excluding non-state actors from the equation of international politics.

As it is often the case, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to relaunch multilateralism. But if we had to identify a few characteristics future cooperation will adopt, these will likely pertain the circumvention of traditional diplomatic channels. “Grey Zone tactics”, authority gaps and “hybrid warfare” will need to be countered with a mixed approach based on one hand on propping up local surrogates (as it’s currently happening with the SDF in northern Syria), but also long-term civilian development projects to prevent the emergence of complex crises in the first place. These measures are mainly intended to secure access to credible and legitimate actors on the ground and bypass barriers imposed by nation-level authorities. All these solutions, albeit presenting their own problems, would arguably be more effective than trying to oppose the historic trends we’re witnessing. Whatever the future of conflicts will be, whether we’ll continue to witness a relative decline in power of the state or not, a Concert of Powers would be ineffective, lend legitimacy to questionable “pure” power struggles and interventions aimed to protect an abstract status quo.


[1] This situation, first theorized in The Peloponnesian War, has been recently defined by Xi Jinping: “We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap – destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers … Our aim is to foster a new model of major country relations.” Leon Whyte further elaborated on this, writing that “the true trap is countries going into, and continuing, war clouded by passions like fear, hubris and honor”. (http://thediplomat.com/2015/05/the-real-thucydides-trap/)

[2] “A Twenty-First Century Concert of Powers –Promoting Great Power Multilateralism for the Post-Transatlantic Era”, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) 2014

[3] https://warontherocks.com/2017/06/how-the-international-system-shapes-the-character-of-war-order-geography-and-networks/

[4] “Meeting Security Challenges in a Disordered World”, Rebecca KC Hersman and others, CSIS 2017

[5] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5e9e/70a20ec180c7415d9173905bf506fce28bf2.pdf